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Privacy at heart of Detroit armed robbery case U.S. Supreme Court to hear Wed.

Nov 27, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear the appeal of Timothy Carpenter, a man convicted of several armed robberies in Detroit and Northwest Ohio. The case started with the 2010 armed robbery of a RadioShack on Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, and a string of subsequent armed robberies. Because of how police used cell phone data to track suspects, Carpenter's appeal could have major implications for how courts interpret privacy rights in the online era.

During the investigation into multiple related armed robberies, investigators were able to monitor Carpenter's location using data from cell phone tower records obtained without a warrant. Carpenter’s cell phone carrier handed over pages of data to police. That's how it happens in thousands of police investigations each year.

The Supreme Court will have to consider what kinds of cell phone tower data police should be able to access without a warrant.
Credit Public Domain

Carpenter is currently serving a 116-year federal prison sentence after a jury convicted him of multiple armed robberies. Carpenter’s legal team contends police should have needed a warrant to access the individual customer data that cell phone carriers maintain. The Supreme Court will have to decide if investigators’ use of troves of cell phone data to track Carpenter’s movements violated his 4th amendment rights – which protect against unreasonable searches.

Using data from Carpenter’s cell phone carrier, investigators were able to track his location. Without needing a warrant, law enforcement could tell where Carpenter’s phone was located at the beginning and end of every call it made for four consecutive months. The data showed Carpenter was near the area where stores were robbed, and helped build the case against him.

Supreme Court Justices are scheduled to hear arguments in the appeal Wednesday.